Saturday, October 15, 2011
The most frustrating part of the afternoon question-and-answer period was her discussion of the issue of property fights between the denomination and parishes that wish to leave the Episcopal Church. She has been criticized for allegedly preventing such congregations from purchasing "their" property, preferring (where necessary) to deconsecrate the property and sell it for some other use. She was asked about a recent WSJ op-ed piece on the subject, and criticized it as "more fiction than non-fiction." However, she affirmed that the Episcopal Church does not let property go without deconsecrating it.
The problem I see with this position is that it is proper only to someone claiming to speak for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is the Church as a whole that consecrates or deconsecrates. To suggest that fellow Christians cannot use consecrated property is to suggest that they are no longer part of the true Church.
As far as I could tell, the Presiding Bishop's ecclesiology is one in which the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is made up of diverse, parallel organizations that both cooperate and (at times) compete with each other (she used the example of a healthy ecosystem in which there are many flourishing organisms). And yet, as her stance with regards to the Episcopal Church's property shows, she winds up in practice speaking as if the Episcopal Church simply were the Church. If she really valued the presence of many competing "organisms," why not let the departing parishes go, facilitate their purchase of the property they had been using, and celebrate the resulting diversity?
The basic problem here is that however much a denomination may claim to be only part of the universal Church, denominations don't seem to be able to stop themselves from acting as if they were the Church. And I think the answer is to admit that a denomination is not even a Church in any theological sense.
There are local churches, gathered around a local bishop, and there is the Universal Church.
Everything in between is just administration.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Most of the movies on this disc are of primarily historical interest. The earliest ones were primarily experiments, though an interest in storytelling develops early on. Many of the early films were "actualites"--essentially what we would now call documentaries, though very brief and with a stationary camera. People would set up a camera outside a factory or in a train station and simply film what was going on. (Of course, one has to suspect that pretty soon the filmmakers started manipulating events in order to get more interesting results.)
Slapstick comedy is one of the genres that developed very early. Much of it isn't very interesting, at least to me. The humor often seems heavy-handed.
The three most famous movies on this disc are "The Great Train Robbery" by Edwin Porter from 1903, sometimes called the first Western; "A Voyage to the Moon" (1902) by the Frenchmoviemaker Georges Melies; and "A Girl and Her Trust" (1912) by D. W. Griffith. "Robbery" is historically interesting and somewhat enjoyable. The most talked-about moment in the movie is usually shown at the end, when one of the robbers turns and fires his gun at the camera; this seems to have nothing to do with the story (the robbers have been caught by this point), and as I understand no one really knows when it was originally supposed to be shown. "A Voyage to the Moon" seems to be largely based on Jules Verne. It's the most famous movie by Melies, who began as a stage magician and is best known for his development of special effects. Melies doesn't do a lot for me--I recognize that his technical wizardry was impressive, and that he had a quirky imagination, and I have more respect for what he did than for the bloated CGI that audiences flock to see today. But there doesn't seem to be any heart in his films--they're all trickery and crude spectacle. Historically interesting, but not particularly meaningful on other counts.
Griffith's "A Girl and Her Trust," on the other hand (a revision of a movie called "The Lonedale Operator"), is great melodrama with a plucky heroine who saves a safe from a gang of bandits (largely, in the final climax, by simply hanging on to it as they drive off with it--and her--along the railroad tracks). It has one of the great early chase scenes in the movies, and a lovely final shot of the heroine and her boyfriend sharing a sandwich while riding on the bumper of the train that has rescued her. Watching this movie made me a fan of Griffiths--about whom more to come if I continue this series.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
With said bias in mind:
Jenn's basic argument is that Methodists who pushed for the use of non-alcoholic "wine" in the Eucharist in the late 19th century were doing so based on a coherent theological/philosophical point of view based in "common-sense realism." I'm no expert on commonsense realism, so I won't discuss the more technical historical-philosophical aspect of Jenn's argument. But she captures the American Victorian Protestant ethos brilliantly. The theologians, moral reformers, and authors of household advice manuals whose work she examines all shared the conviction that clear thinking about the world, based on reliable sense impressions and free from undue influence by passion or imagination, was key to personal morality, social welfare, and true religion. They were deeply suspicious of the irrationality and self-indulgence that they identified with Romantic poets on the one hand and with Catholic immigrants on the other. They believed sincerely that "cleanliness is next to godliness" (maybe even identical with it).
The most appropriate symbol for this view of the world was water. Jenn quotes a number of "temperance hymns" which extol the benefits of "pure, cold water" (see p. 62, for instance). Jenn is writing about Methodists, not Mormons, but it may be significant that Mormons (like some early Gnostics) substituted water for the "fruit of the vine" in their version of the Eucharist. Methodists and other mainstream Protestants were too attached to traditional Christianity to follow the Mormon example in this. Indeed, temperance reformers initially did not condemn all alcohol, instead arguing for stricter standards of purity in the production of alcohol and fighting against the distilling trade. Properly produced beer and wine could be consumed healthfully in small quantities (this was John Wesley's view). Hard liquor and the "adulterated" beer and wine often drunk by the lower classes were entirely evil. Benjamin Rush's "temperance thermometer" reflects this early view (p. 21). By the middle of the 19th century, however, temperance advocates had moved on to the condemnation of all alcohol. This brought them into apparent conflict with the Bible, which frequently speaks favorably of wine and seems to mandate its use in the Eucharist. Lacking the claims to additional revelation put forward by the Mormons, how were Methodists and other mainstream American Protestants to handle this apparent conflict? The answer lay in the "two-wine theory," which argued that "pure" wine was in fact non-alcoholic. One of Jenn's most interesting sources (about which I heard a great deal while she was writing the dissertation that eventually became this book) is Frederic R. Lees' Temperance Bible Commentary, which goes through every verse in the Bible discussing wine and argues systematically for the two-wine theory.
The central chapters of the book deal respectively with "Alcohol and Science," "Alcohol and the Overthrow of Reason," "Alcohol, the Ideal Worker, and the Poisoned Chalice," and "Alcohol and the Truth of the Gospel." A further chapter discusses how similar concerns about cleanliness and rationality underlay the move away from the common cup toward small individual cups.
The concluding chapter, beginning "This is the story of how grape juice became holy" (p. 121), is a brilliant summary of the argument of the book as a whole, focusing on the contrast between a contemporary "liturgical" sensibility valuing mystery, ecstasy, and passion and the theological views that motivated the temperance reformers. Jenn is formed by the liturgical tradition within Methodism, and this book is an impressive exercise in getting inside the heads of people with whose assumptions she fundamentally disagrees.
Obviously the book is useful for all grape-juice-using American Protestants (not just Methodists) who want to understand their heritage on this point, as well as for non-American Protestants, American non-Protestants, and even those who are neither American nor Protestant, who may wish to understand the weird practices of this particular tribal family. However, in a society increasingly divided along "culture-war" lines, where people on both sides routinely refuse to see any intellectual validity in the other, the seriousness with which Jenn takes her subjects' ideas may be the greatest significance of the book. (Jenn is not, I'm happy to say, unique in this respect--there are a number of young scholars of American religion who are doing this kind of thing.) It is common to hear liberal intellectuals claim (or more tragically, just assume) that the "great unwashed" of conservative American Protestantism do what they do for fundamentally non-theological reasons, usually because they are being manipulated by millionaires. In the present instance, it is often asserted that the Welch family promoted non-alcoholic Eucharistic "wine" for purely financial considerations. Jenn shows the abundant intellectual roots of Eucharistic grape juice (if juice can have roots), demonstrating that 19th-century American Protestants, right or wrong, had coherent reasons for their views. She also points out that temperance advocates saw themselves as "progressive," interpreting Scripture in the light of science and clearing away the fetid foliage of tradition to make way for the light of common sense and responsible democratic citizenship.
In summary, this book is an engagingly written, often wryly funny work of scholarship that sheds light on some of the basic underlying assumptions of the mainstream 19th-century American Protestant tradition, which continues to shape American society today. For those of us who come from that tradition, the book helps us understand ourselves better. Thanks to Jenn's work, I have a much better understanding of just what it is about my religious heritage that I reject, and why that rejection has brought me where I am today. I stand firmly on the side of mystery and paradox against common sense. And yet when I read this book, I hear the rippling of cool, clear water and I have a better understanding of the moral and spiritual vision that shaped my childhood than I did when I was under its un-enchanting spell.
(Final note: one of the big questions left to be addressed by this book is the role of emotion and even Romanticism in the Wesleyan tradition. Our mutual friend Chris Armstrong of "Grateful to the Dead" tends to emphasize this--he and Jenn have some disagreements on the subject. In my own case, I find that the "Romantic" elements of my heritage are the ones with which I am still most in agreement, while the "common-sense" elements are the ones I am most inclined to reject outright. But this is not a subject that can be addressed adequately within the limits of this review.)
Friday, March 18, 2011
I disagree substantively with Pastor DeYoung on a number of points, with regard both to his interpretation of Bell and to the theological standards he is using to critique Bell. Since his review is very well organized, I will follow his arrangement of topics, noting agreements as well as disagreements with his critiques.
I will start with DeYoung's third "preliminary," which attempts to close some "escape hatches" found in Love Wins.
As you’ll see, the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds “misguided and toxic” (viii). But in one or two places Bell seems more agnostic.
Bell is agnostic not about the claim that all who do not believe in Jesus in this life will suffer eternally (he clearly rejects this), but about the question of whether there will be some who, in spite of God's persistent offer of grace, eternally choose to turn God down. DeYoung continues:
These are strange sentences because they fall in the chapter where Bell argues that God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants. He tells us that “never-ending punishment” does not give God glory, and “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). So it’s unclear where the sudden agnosticism comes from. Is Bell wrestling with himself? Did a friend or editor ask him to throw in a few caveats? Is he simply inconsistent?
The answer is much simpler. Bell is describing a position he regards as a serious theological option, held by "an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years," not necessarily the position he himself holds. Bell's position is not self-contradictory or dishonest. He is consistent from beginning to end about his "agnosticism" concerning the question of whether some will eternally persist in saying "no" to God. He considers universalism to be a live option within Christian orthodoxy, but he does not consider it to be unquestionably true.
Similarly, at the end Bell argues, rather out of the blue, that we need to trust God in the present, that our choices here and now “matter more than we can begin to imagine” because we can miss out on rewards and celebrations (197). This almost looks like an old-fashioned call to turn to Christ before it’s too late. When you look more carefully, however, you see that Bell is not saying what evangelicals might think.You don't have to look that carefully. DeYoung is proceeding on the assumption that Bell is somehow trying to pretend to be a traditional evangelical. He isn't. DeYoung doesn't want to allow Bell to say that our choices here matter unless Bell says that they matter in the same way DeYoung thinks they do. This is not a fair way to argue. By all means disagree with Bell. Condemn him as a heretic if you think you need to. But don't try to argue that he's being shifty or dishonest when he simply doesn't accept the dichotomies that you wish to impose.
He wants us to make the most of life because “while we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again” (197). In other words, there are consequences for our actions, in this life and in the next, and we can’t get this moment back; but there will always be more chances. If you don’t live life to the fullest and choose love now, you may initially miss out on some good things in the life to come, but in the end love wins (197–198).
"Love wins" for Bell because God respects human freedom, so if people do choose to reject Christ eternally (something Bell hopes they won't do but recognizes as a possibility) love still wins. This isn't too hard to understand. The fact that DeYoung and other critics are confused by it says a lot for how their theological commitments restrict their ability to understand those who differ from them. If you have a theology that tells you that people who differ on major issues are probably not real Christians and thus are spiritually blind, then you aren't likely to take the trouble to think in the unfamiliar ways necessary to understand them. This is not a personal judgment on the character of Pastor DeYoung or his theological allies, but a judgment on the general tendency of conservative Calvinist theology.
The same problem plagues the next section of DeYoung's review, "Not Your Grandmother's Christianity," in which DeYoung argues that Bell is deeply conflicted about his evangelical heritage, wishing to criticize it while remaining faithful to it. To which I respond: you make this sound like a bad thing! I've noticed that conservative Christians, especially Calvinists, frequently portray any kind of mediating position or any position including tensions or paradoxes as a dishonest compromise, and urge folks occupying such a position to be "honest" and go all the way. After all, it's easy to deal with someone who rejects orthodox Christianity outright. But someone like Bell is annoying because he persists in identifying himself as an evangelical. DeYoung insists that Bell is trying to "evolve out of" his heritage, when Bell would say that he is calling evangelicals to be faithful to the best and truest elements of their heritage while questioning some other elements.
I understand how traditionalist Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox find this kind of language objectionable. But how can any Protestant object to such an approach on principle?
This [Bell's supposed desire to "evolve out of" his evangelical past] presumes, of course, that the Christian faith is not a deposit to guard or a tradition that must not change (2 Tim. 1:14; 2 Thess. 2:15). Much of Bell’s polemic fails if there is a core of apostolic teaching that we are called, not just to embrace as part of our journey, but to protect from deviation and defend against false teaching (Acts 20:29–31).
I agree to some extent with DeYoung here. Bell is prone to rhetoric implying that any drawing of doctrinal lines is wrong and that there is really no such thing as heresy at all. This is an untenable position. However, the point at issue with regard to Love Wins is whether the particular claims made by Bell are at odds with the "core of apostolic teaching." I do not believe that they are. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything Bell says, and I certainly think he is often not the best advocate for his own positions.
I will end my response here for now. I will continue, when I have time, with a response to DeYoung's historical criticisms of Bell (and as a teaser: this is the place where I'm most inclined to agree with DeYoung--Bell's history is often very sloppy).
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
When we hear people saying they can't believe in a God who gets angry--yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn't get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (38)(Note: the view that God literally feels wrath is just as marginal in Christian tradition as universalism, but clearly both Bell and DeYoung are treating wrath as synonymous with judgment, and we don't need to get into the "does God have emotions" question here.) What Bell denies is a "wrath" consisting of final retributive judgment that closes off the possibility for repentance. Bell insists that the door is always open on God's side. I understand that for conservative Calvinists and perhaps some conservative Arminians this is an unorthodox position, but it's one shared by C. S. Lewis and many others. DeYoung's review risks misleading readers who don't share all DeYoung's positions into thinking that Bell is farther away from the mainstream than he actually is.
It's the eighth sign, the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus himself right here in the midst of the first creation. The tomb is empty, a new day is here, a new creation is here, everything has changed, death has been conquered. (133)DeYoung seems to assume that Bell regards the resurrection of Jesus simply as one manifestation of the "divine energy" present in the universe. (This is certainly a valid concern in the contemporary theological context: see the 2001 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which criticizes versions of Catholic theology that reduce Jesus to "one of the many faces the Logos has assumed" (chap. 2).) But that's not what Bell says. Bell consistently speaks of the resurrection of Jesus in the terms quoted above--as an event that matters decisively for the entire universe. Bell's paradoxical claim that Jesus is "as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe" (155) is a claim about the centrality, not the relativity, of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Bell's point appears to be that this Jesus who walked around in flesh and blood is the eternal Logos present everywhere and at all times. This is not heresy. It's orthodoxy.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
In a rare foray into modern times, I attended a talk last night about George MacDonald (1824-1905), an author who has played an important role in my life since I was about thirteen and discovered the wretched modernized versions of his novels available in Christian bookstores. And that got me thinking about how relevant Macdonald's legacy is to what shows some signs of becoming the next "big controversy" in evangelicalism.
MacDonald was kicked out of the Congregationalist ministry for suggesting that salvation might have a broader scope than traditional Calvinism allowed for. He eventually embraced a kind of universalism quite common in 19th-century "Broad Church" circles, though few expressed it as powerfully or as pungently as MacDonald. MacDonald believed that God was every bit as awesomely sovereign and terrifyingly holy as Calvinism taught, but that the consuming fire of God's love would eventually overcome human sin and rebellion.
The talk last night was under the auspices of the "C. S. Lewis and Friends" group at Taylor University, and focused on the well-documented influence of MacDonald on C. S. Lewis (who called him his "master"). Lewis never adopted MacDonald's eschatology entirely, but he devoted a good deal of energy to developing a doctrine of hell that took on board MacDonald's criticisms of traditional Western Christian ideas. Lewis's _The Great Divorce_, in which MacDonald appeared as a heavenly guide, explores just how it might be that a person could finally reject God's love and thus be damned eternally. When challenged by "Lewis" the character with the fact that he had been a universalist on earth. "MacDonald" the character responds that yes, it is possible that everyone will eventually be saved, but we cannot know this. What we know, _The Great Divorce_ argues, is that the action of God's mercy is endless and that we can only defeat it by ceasing to be in any meaningful sense human beings at all. And at the same time, we know that certain choices on our part close us off from God's love and drive us farther into the "outer darkness." That's all we need to know. (Jerry Walls has developed Lewis's views in a more systematic way, though without the hint of "hopeful universalism" found in Lewis, in his excellent Hell: The Logic of Damnation.)
Given Lewis's immense popularity in evangelical circles, it's disappointing that so many folks are responding to Bell as if Lewis's thoughtful reworking of MacDonald's ideas had never occurred. Certainly Lewis's name has been invoked in the blogs dealing with Bell, and a number of people have made the same points I've just made (like I said, I'm slow. . . . ). But there seem to be quite a few folks out there who admire Lewis while being willing to write Bell off altogether as a heretic. And one has to ask, why? One blogger suggested that Lewis was much more tentative in his positions than Bell, and that may well be true. But it doesn't seem to me to explain the disconnect.
John Piper, who has distinguished himself in an unfortunate manner by bidding "farewell" to Bell in a Tweet, has a thoughtful lecture available online addressing precisely this disconnect between how he views Lewis and how he views the "emergent" writers (this lecture was given last year, before the controversy over Bell's new book). Piper argues that Lewis is not a good source for "Biblical exegesis" or even doctrine, and that pastors should not rely on Lewis's writings as resources for their preaching. He claims that Lewis's "Mere Christianity" omits many points essential to the true Gospel. And yet, Piper invokes Lewis as one of the major influences on his life and work, because of Lewis's focus on "the unfathomable rock-solid objectivity of God and his Truth and his gospel as infinitely Beautiful and infinitely Desirable and, therefore, as the unshakeable ground of unutterable and exalted Joy." (Piper goes on to give more reasons, but this is the most "fundamental.")
I think one could make a case that there are serious internal tensions in such an attitude--how can Lewis really be so deeply rooted in the reality of God, on conservative Reformed terms, if he basically got the Gospel wrong? But whether that's the case or not, I think that this attitude is fairly common among conservative evangelicals and needs to be challenged. For me, on the contrary, Lewis was a powerful influence precisely because he drew me out of sectarian Protestantism into an appreciation for the breadth and depth of true Christian orthodoxy. Lewis is a conduit to the "Great Tradition" of Christianity. And that tradition has been wrestling with the questions raised by Bell for some time now, with productive results which conservative evangelicals would do well to take more seriously. (Note for instance the acceptance of "hopeful universalism" among fairly conservative Roman Catholics, and the explicit adoption of an "inclusivist" position by Vatican II.)
The deeper issue raised by the Bell controversy is this: is the Reformed tradition (as interpreted by "new Reformed" folks like Piper) to be accepted by evangelicals as the center of orthodox Christianity? Are Arminian evangelicals to go on attempting to justify their orthodoxy by appealing to standards set by the Reformed? I object to this approach not because it makes us "second-class citizens," though it does (that's an unworthy consideration when speaking of Christian truth), but because it puts the center in the wrong place. We ought to be asking how we would justify ourselves to Athanasius and the Cappadocians, not to John Calvin or even Augustine.
By all means, let's care about doctrine, as the new Reformed urge us to. Let's avoid fuzzy thinking. And let's first of all avoid the fuzzy thinking of taking a relatively marginal, dubiously orthodox strand of Christianity (Calvinism) as the standard against which new ideas (or not-so-new ones!) must be measured.